The good news is that it’s all different from last year’s.
Published in 1971, this can be a hard book to find. I found a used copy in very good condition through Amazon, and I'm liking it very much. The "Express" of the title is the Mombasa-Nairobi railroad built in the early 20th century, infamous for attacks from the Lions of Tsavo, who feasted on a variety of African railway workers and even a few white guys.
I have a special connection to them, having worked for some time at the Field Museum of Natural History, where the Lions of Tsavo reside today, sated with stuffing and safe behind glass. But before we even get to the railroad, Miller tells a riveting story of the characters, both African and European, who played a part in the earlier history of East Africa.
Reading up on the Wars of the Roses, recently, I noted that Elizabeth Woodville, the queen of Edward IV, died in 1492, and my immediate thought was that she was the last Medieval. The father of Henry VIII is on the throne. The wars that have plagued England for half a century, in which Elizabeth and her husband played some of the last scenes, are over. Within six months of her death, men from Spain will land on a little island off the coast of the Americas. Of which she has known and now will know nothing.
Armesto paints a picture of the year as it might have appeared to people from Africa to Spain to the Far East, and the effect that it had on everyone from Jews to Native Americans. 1492 has all the cosmological impact of landing on the moon, if we had discovered that there were indeed little green men and easily exploitable resources. No spoilers now, though. I'll let you know how it all turns out when I finish it.
Are you sensing a theme here? Forget 1492! Greenblatt places the beginning of the modern world in the ancient one, with the poet/philosopher Lucretius and his magnum opus, De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things. Or, to be more precise, he places it with the almost miraculous rediscovery of the manuscript by a book hunter of the 15th century. I've barely begun this one, and I can't wait to unravel his argument. So far I'm willing to believe that, if Lucretius and the bookhunter didn't found modernity as irreplaceable partners, they very likely gave it a jump start.
See what I mean about the theme. I love books that explore transitions. Medieval/Renaissance: how did the people living on that cusp of time experience their world? Edwardian society/The Great War: There may have been people who saw the war coming in 1913, but did any of them see the 20's? This is another one that I've just begun. Another one that paints a picture across a spectrum of world capitols. I've just been to London with Emmerson, and now we have arrived in Paris. In 1913.
A year or so ago, I watched a BBC series called Copper, which took place in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City during the Civil War. Not too long after that, I was encouraged to Netflix the film, Gangs of New York. And then somewhere, I've forgotten where, I saw the name of this book. It was a no-brainer. I'm nearly half-way finished, and so far would recommend it to anyone interested in the cultural history of our country, attitudes toward Jews, African Americans, and immigrants. Attitudes toward crime and "vice." And the beginnings and contradictions of those interested in helping the poor. Anbinder tells personal stories and cites telling statistics, provides maps of who lived where and describes how. I'll write a review when I finish the book, but I've read enough to confidently recommend it to anyone who likes this kind of stuff.
The fiction selection of the moment. I'm nearly finished, and will write a review very soon. In the meantime, all I can say is if you don't like Hemingway, you'll love Zelda.
And if you like these, may I also suggest:
SYBIL SUMMER, 75, can still fly, which is lucky because it’s the only way she, her son TEDDY, grandson BRIAN, and her crippled friend SEBASTIAN are going to escape the Homelanders. The year is 2030. Frightened by a series of terrorist attacks, most Americans hide within walled communities, depending on an expanded Department of Homeland Security for safety. Now the “Homelanders” want Teddy for murder, and probably treason as well.
The narrative switches between 2030 and 1978, as Sybil remembers or retells the events of that earlier summer, a journey to a Grateful Dead show at Red Rocks, and tragedy on a mountainside in Colorado.
Sophie Fletcher is taking her dream vacation in the Land of Story, as she and her late father had called the island of Britain. She doesn’t know why she’s suddenly able to see ghosts, but there they are: her mother, also dead these past two years, who wants help finding her husband’s spirit, and a 16th century soldier, who can’t resist following her. It seems Sophie is the spitting image of the woman he had loved and left, some 400 years before. How is she going to explain them to her two suitors, both very much alive? Doors that Sophie never knew existed are opening for her, doors that lead not only to the past but to possibilities she is only now beginning to comprehend. Ghosts of the Heart is a novel of hauntings, of myths old and new, of regrets past and present, and of love lost and found.
I sincerely hope that next year’s list will include my third novel, A Dream of Houses. I’m off to Oregon next week to finish the first draft. Wish me luck, and cozy up soon with a good book.